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Minnesota Football: Who will step up for the Gophers in 2020?

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Minnesota will need to replace starters on both sides of the ball

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, All-American defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. announced he is headed to the NFL, vacating another starting spot on defense that the Minnesota Golden Gophers will have to fill heading into next season. The Gophers lose a pair of playmakers on offense and will need to rebuild nearly their entire defense, with only four returning starters. We take stock of the players Minnesota has waiting in the wings to replace each departing starter.

Rodney Smith

I actually covered this very topic a while back, but the Gophers have no shortage of options at running back to replace Rodney. Mohamed Ibrahim will almost certainly get the bulk of the carries next season, and some combination of Cam Wiley, Bryce Williams, Treyson Potts, Jason Williamson, and maybe even incoming freshman (and early enrollee) Ky Thomas will help fill out the “pair and a spare” head coach P.J. Fleck likes to have at this position.

Tyler Johnson

Look, I don’t think there is another Tyler Johnson on this roster. Yes, there is Rashod Bateman, but I would be surprised if there is another member of this receiving corps who can match his production the way Johnson did. Try to temper your expectations. What I think we are more likely to see is quarterback Tanner Morgan spreading the wealth.

With Johnson and Bateman accounting for 68% of the team’s receptions and 77% of the team’s receiving yards this season, you would think the Gophers lacked depth at wide receiver. I don’t think that’s the case, and I see the upcoming 2020 season as an opportunity for Chris Autman-Bell, Demetrius Douglas, Mike Brown-Stephens, Nnamdi Adim-Madumere, and true freshmen Douglas Emilien and Daniel Jackson to get in on the action.

Carter Coughlin and Winston DeLattiboudere

Call me crazy, but I am personally very much looking forward to an infusion of fresh blood at this position. No disrespect intended to Coughlin or DeLattiboudere, both of whom were three-year starters for Minnesota, but Fleck and co. have recruited an intriguing stockpile of talent at defensive end and I am eager to see what they can do on the field.

Outside of Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe, the Gophers are very young at this position, with one redshirt sophomore, two redshirt freshmen, and five incoming true freshmen. It’s anyone’s guess who will see meaningful snaps at defensive end in 2020, but here’s hoping that a new decade brings a change of fortune to a position that has been a sore spot for this program.

Sam Renner

Renner was an unsung hero of the Gopher defense this season, but fortunately Minnesota has the depth to replace him. Micah Dew-Treadway returns after being granted a sixth year of eligibility, and Keonte Schad, Jamaal Teague, and Noah Hickcox are all back after figuring into the defensive tackle rotation. The wild cards may be redshirt freshmen Rashad Cheney and DeAngelo Carter.

Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin

Two more tough losses for the Gopher defense, as Barber was a three-year starter at linebacker and Martin was a key contributor for three seasons before putting it all together as a senior. But it helps that both Braelen Oliver and Mariano Sori-Marin saw significant playing time this year and actually improved as the season went along. I would expect those two to be your starters next season, but don’t be surprised if redshirt freshmen James Gordon and Donald Willis make a push for playing time. Fleck made sure both saw special teams action to help them get acclimated.

Chris Williamson

After transferring from Florida, Williamson found a home in Minnesota and at slot corner for the Gopher defense. I’m actually more concerned about replacing Williamson than I am about replacing Antoine Winfield Jr. Justus Harris is listed behind Williamson on the depth chart, but I actually think the player best suited to take the torch is incoming freshman Jalen Glaze. I think he might actually be the most undervalued player in this latest recruiting class.

Glaze played both cornerback and safety in high school. He has great range as a safety and is adept at reading the quarterback’s eyes and making a play on the ball. He can play zone and man coverage well and is physical enough to hold his own at the line of scrimmage. The slot corner position is a hybrid position because it often asks the player to be both a linebacker and a defensive back, and I think Glaze has all the tools to fill that role and succeed.

If not Glaze at the nickel position, Harris or redshirt freshman Solomon Brown may get a look. I’ve seen it suggested that Coney Durr, Benjamin St.-Juste, Kiondre Thomas, or Terell Smith could shift inside to slot corner, but I’m not crazy about the idea, especially considering how effective Durr and St.-Juste have been on the outside.

Antoine Winfield Jr.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know how you replace a player like Winfield, unless you’re a program that can bring in blue-chip recruits year in and year out. But sophomore Tyler Nubin seems primed to step in for Winfield, although I don’t think he’ll be asked to do as much as his predecessor, at least this early in his development. I believe you’ll see more expected of Jordan Howden, who will be in this third year as a starter. But Nubin is physically ready, with the height, build, and length you want at the college level. He can go man-to-man and has good ball skills. Nubin is another player the coaching staff made sure to get on the field this year, knowing he’d be needed next season.

Behind Howden and Nubin, your next best safety is probably Benny Sapp III. I would not be surprised if incoming freshman Michael Dixon cracks the two-deep.